Moscow and Paris are in a horse race for the President’s Trophy and at the first quarter pole, it’s Spartak by a nose.
A trade made Sunday by Moscow GM Michael Banker has a make-or-break feel to it. Dustin Brown, a proven leader with an NHL Stanley Cup on his resume, has made his way to Moscow in a trade that sent two original Moscow draft picks – James Van Riemsdyk and Marcus Johansson – to Stockholm.
While a little concerned the trade could ruin the team’s chemistry, it appears that Banker has now constructed a clear-cut top line of Brown, Andrew Ladd and Anze Kopitar, as well as a shut-down line of Brandon Sutter, Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen. Don’t under-estimate the worth of the Sutter line. They routinely steal pucks, check opposing defensemen to cause turnovers and they block shots. They have also combined for 18 goals in 24 games and are plus 6. The Kopitar line is loaded with guile and skill and should be an awesome force to deal with, especially when coach Glen Gulutzan can line match in games held in Moscow. Spartak, Athens and Madrid are the league’s top home teams, all with just two regulation losses.
It’s not that Aleksey Morozov, a second-round pick in the Season 2 draft, was doing poorly on Kopitar’s right before the trade. Morozov is second on the team in goals with 10 and was second in points with 19. But with Brown in town, he might filter down to the third line with Derek Roy and Alexei Kalyuzhny.
The two top lines in Moscow have been built in a combination of ways: trades, the draft and free agency.
Kopitar was the first-ever member of the team, a 14th overall pick in the initial EURO draft, a selection made by Banker’s predecessor, Ezec. Ladd was acquired by Banker in a blockbuster of a deal before last season’s trade deadline. Banker sent Moscow native Alexander Ovechkin and David Bolland to Copenhagen for Ladd, Sutter and defenseman Kevin Dallman. Hansen is an original Moscow draftee and Higgins and Roy were signed as free agents before the start of this season.
Moscow’s second pick in the initial draft is their top goaltender, Jaroslav Halak. He is currently the fourth-best goalie in the league in both goals against average and save percentage. And he appears to be getting better. The 28-year-old’s numbers improved from Season 1 to Season 2 and they have gotten a little better since.
In front of him is a defense corps led by Duncan Keith and Andrei Makarov. Keith was Moscow’s fourth-round pick in the initial draft, and Makarov was a “Go for it now” pick that Banker made in the Season 3 draft, one selection after he nabbed prospect defensemen Darrell Nurse. Makarov, at age 34 and with a $5.8 million contract, would only be taken by a team serious about grabbing the third EURO Cup. Moscow was that team. The investment in the Russian veteran is paying off so far. He has 6 goals and 12 assists, averages 2 shots per game, plays the point on the powerplay, and with Keith there to help cover up for any defensive miscues, his plus-minus rating stands at plus 11. He also has taken just one minor penalty this season. Jason Garrison, who started his career with Milan, and Kevin Dallman, acquired in the Ovechkin trade, make up the second pairing, and Anton Stralman (drafted by Frankfurt) and Kyle Quincey (drafted by Oslo) are the third pairing.
That’s a team that will be one of the ones to beat for anyone who wants to follow in Geneva and Paris’ footsteps as league champions. Moscow is the fourth-highest scoring team in the league and second in shots per game, but more impressive is their defensive play. Only Helsinki is ahead of them in the goals against column.
Brown’s first games with Kopitar, Ladd and Spartak will be in the British Isles on Tuesday and Wednesday.